(Photo by Katie & Ian via Creative Commons)
Andy Johnson of Winnishiek Energy District says persistence is key to encouraging energy improvements.
Andy Johnson of Winneshiek Energy District says persistence is key to encouraging energy improvements.

An energy audit often is the first step towards achieving greater energy efficiency in a home or business.

Too frequently, however, that first step also ends up being the last step: the audit findings sit on a shelf, and never lead to energy-saving improvements such as insulation or more-efficient appliances.

Sometimes, a nudge is needed to bring efficiency to fruition. The American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy in a recent report cited more comprehensive and persistent energy planning services as one of the defining features of the nation’s most successful utility efficiency programs.

The Winneshiek Energy District, a Decorah, Iowa-based non-profit that promotes energy sustainability, is one agency that has moved beyond the audit to the nudge. For about three years, Winneshiek has been offering comprehensive “energy planning” services.

Winneshiek Energy District is a member of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

Midwest Energy News spoke to Winneshiek’s executive director, Andy Johnson, about energy planning – how it works, and how well it works.

Midwest Energy News: What is energy planning?

Johnson: We see energy planning as very different from auditing. The way an audit functions is they get in, they leave a report, and they get out. It’s very product-oriented. Most of the time when an audit report is left, it just gets buried. There’s not enough analysis for people to make a decision. It’s never on their must-do list unless someone is there to bang on the door until it happens.

What else do you do under the guise of “energy planning?”

We help you make a plan, with a schedule and a timeline. Energy planning includes comprehensive diagnostics, analysis including all energy sources and uses and using historical data, development and prioritization of practices based on user objectives, including financials, development of an implementation plan, active follow-through by the energy professional as necessary to ensure implementation, and any evaluation or certification that’s necessary.

How many energy-planning customers have you served so far?

Over the past two to three years we’ve provided energy planning services to about 50 local businesses and 150 local homeowners.

Tell me about your outcomes.

Of the 50 businesses receiving the first steps of energy planning, 45 completed significant projects. Of the 150 residential participants, we’re probably at about 75 percent completing projects (many are still in process at any given time).

That’s a very high conversion rate. That’s in large part because we kept their phones ringing. The “planning” part was to keep calling them.

Not only are these very high conversion rates relative to most programs, but the “additionality” of this approach is also very significant. Compared to a prescriptive rebate learned about at the store or through a contractor already selling you a furnace because yours just failed, comprehensive energy planning is often identifying new opportunities and helping people take advantage of incentives they had no knowledge of, or minimal likelihood of accomplishing.

This service presumably costs more than the typical energy audit.

Costs have so far have been in line with the “home performance” programs offered by utilities, including in Iowa, which can be double or more that of “traditional” auditing. The impact far outweighs the added cost.

You are quite emphatic about the value of providing energy planning services on a local basis, rather than, say, a utility contracting with one provider that would travel all or much of the state to provide audits. What is the importance of energy planning provided locally?

Local professionals are in place to follow through with a process. We can walk over and knock on their door. Because we are local, and because of the power of the comprehensive planning process, we got dramatic participation and conversion rates.

Local professionals and organizations are more accountable to local customers. Local customers tell their family/friends/neighbors, and word of mouth is more powerful that millions spent on a TV show about energy efficiency.

Communities organize around local opportunities and impacts, and the local economic impact of efficiency and renewables is tremendous. We’re not saying the Iowa efficiency programs (run by the major utilities) should be done away with, but rather that there is a true missing link which is locally-led energy planning.

How would you propose to move ahead with transitioning from simple audits provided by utility companies to more comprehensive energy planning services?

This is a hybrid approach. Let the utilities manage the rebate and demand response, and let’s open up the technical-assistance portion to the marketplace of innovation. We could have more open access to that. Utilities could still be involved in that. They would collect ratepayer funds. They could be part of the technical working group convened by (a third party). They could all agree on the best qualifications for energy contractors. For the low-income program, they already do that.

We can be very effective in Iowa by creating an open marketplace for energy auditors and planners. We could ramp up the number of customers and the impacts with each customer.

Let’s see what communities can achieve.

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.